Written by Winter Trabex.
The courage and imagination needed to dream up new, different ways of living is not a gift given to everyone. Though our world is constantly in a state of flux, we as human beings nonetheless construct traditions and normative behaviors around which we base our lives. This pattern can be seen in every region of the world, from the wilds of Alaska wherein Inuits live in Igloos to the hot locales of South America where people farm a variety of crops on mountainsides, with each crop being different depending on the altitude where it is placed. Varying local environmental conditions have led to different norms in different regions. It wouldn’t make sense to wear a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals in Alaska just as it wouldn’t make sense to wear heavy furs and snowshoes in Brazil.
The same effect can be observed in a variety of other ways, as well. Speech patterns- even in the same language- vary from region to region. The Spanish spoken in Mexico is different from the Spanish spoken in Spain. Australian English, British English, and American English are each spoken differently.
Over time, because human beings naturally judge others primarily based on appearance, good-looking people have obtained jobs while others have not. The field of pulchronomics- the economics of beauty- suggests that those who are perceived as attractive will make more money throughout their lives than those who are not perceived as such. Thus, the legions of stories such as this one in which people with tattoos or facial piercings cannot find work. Virtually every advice column or article written about preparing for an interview states the interviewee must dress appropriately.
In other words, job interviews are really just fashion shows. Qualifications, experience, and good looks together make for an immediate hire. Whenever a person does not get hired, the blame (if any exists at all) is always placed upon the interviewee, rather than the economy, or the company, or the interviewer, or- perhaps more appropriately- on the cultural constructions present in the area where the company does business.
Though it is good business for a retail store not to hire people with facial tattoos, it is also becoming increasingly plain that as jobs become scarcer, a higher level of physical attractiveness is becoming required. Employers are no longer willing to accept people who have tattoos that cannot easily be hidden. And, because people with those kind of tattoos can’t easily find work, they can’t afford to have their tattoos removed. Nor does any government in the world subsidize tattoo removal as a medical necessity to be covered by medicare, medicaid, or any other similar program.
The downfall for employers remains with high turnover rates, especially in entry-level labor. Employees who are desperate just to get a single chance don’t get it; those who have more reason to remain longer with each employer, who are unable to hop from job to job, aren’t hired. When employers don’t hire heavily tattooed people, they are choosing instability over stability.
The premise that heavily tattooed people can’t work, or don’t want to work, derives from such people violating cultural boundaries. It has often occurred throughout history that innovators, forward-thinkers, and people who live their lives on their own terms are the first to be shunned, despised, imprisoned, or killed. This can be demonstrated by a set of guidelines for normative behavior called the law. The law sets down prohibitions for what citizens cannot do (and rarely tells them what they must do). Those who break the law face public punishment. The situation is no different for those who break unwritten laws, which are more difficult to define. One such unwritten law, across any culture, appears to be having facial tattoos.
The degree to which societal norms are given full credit and adherence appears to depend greatly on the type of country a person lives in. China, as a heavily statist communist country, ostracizes transgender people in a way that would be unthinkable in America. As a country founded upon Judeo-Christian ideals of monogamy, polygamy in America often occurs within closed-off communities who are reluctant to speak about their experiences due to how they fear the public will react. The resulting tragedy of this becomes apparent when Warren Jeffs was convicted in the rape of two underage girls.
If polygamists did not feel forced to hide themselves away just because they chose to live as they wished, would such a crime ever have occurred? Even with the unique combination of deep spiritual belief and deviation from societal norms, public scrutiny- only possible when people do not fear to be scrutinized- might have made Jeffs think twice about what he was doing.
Nor does the harm done by societal norms end there. In Nigeria, a 2014 a locally popular law signed by President Goodluck Johnathon criminalized the existence of gay people. The article contains the following quote:
“This is a law that is in line with the people’s cultural and religious inclination,” Jonathan’s spokesman Reuben Abati told the AP. “Nigerians are pleased with it.”
The detainment of gay people is not so different in principle than FDR’s detainment of Japanese-American citizens, nor of the Third Reich’s detainment of Jewish citizens, nor of Soviet Russia’s detainment of political dissidents, nor of the mass arrests of thousands of Occupy protestors in 2012 who disrupted the normal social order in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Oakland (among others).
To put it another way, individual belief in normative behavior appears so strong that the worst tyrannies humankind has ever known arises simply from one group- the majority- being one side of the line while another group- the minority- is on the other side of the line. History is full of examples of the majority using its larger numbers to discriminate upon anyone who behaves or operates differently. Limiting an individual’s freedom of choice begins with a determination of who should be limited, and for what reason. A “live and let live” philosophy never influences such a process.
Thus, it becomes plain that the lives of the unemployed tattooed man, the Chinese transgender woman, the imprisoned gay man in Nigeria, each of them victims societal norms, would all be vastly improved if perceptions of what is normal (itself a false concept) would simply cease to exist. Each person mentioned here merely wanted to choose for himself or herself, to live life according to individual free choice. If we as a people value liberty, one of the first steps we should take ought to be accepting people no matter what choices they make or have made, regardless of how much we may be find such choices completely at odds with what we know and believe.